The Unseen Portrait: Reiner Riedler

1. HVD_Einladungskarte_Riedler_SCREEN

A gallery invitation to Riedler’s THE UNSEEN SEEN

An uneasy balance often exists between photojournalism and portraiture. A news photo of a Palestinian youth hurling a bottle rocket at an Israeli tank, or a photo of two Russian Orthodox priests carrying a large icon in the snow, can become a “portrait” once the subject turns and engages the eye of the camera. This engagement of the viewer with the subject, created by a simple head turn to the lens, difficult to parse but powerfully dramatic, lies at the core of many a photographer’s evaluation of his work. Some critics, like Susan Sontag, have even examined the moral issues involved in the subject’s direct confrontation with the photographer/viewer.

Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler not only accepts this dilemma head on, but also seems to delight in his subject’s confrontation with the viewer, not as judgment but as co-conspirator. Riedler’s portraits have none of the objective distancing or sociological recording of Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room or Richard Avedon’s In the American West. There are comedic, even surreal, elements active in Riedler’s work, such as the museum guard here with the radiator echoing the stairway:


… or Love Hotel and the Retired Artists:

3, Vorlieben_ReinerRiedler_photo_g_14

4. Cirkus_ReinerRiedler_photo_g_13

… or the desperate subjects of his essay on immigration, Stormed Fortress Europe:

Algerian refugees in the harbor of Ceuta

Algerian refugees in the harbor of Ceuta

It is often difficult to summarize the intentions and goals of a photographer in a few sentences, but Riedler’s brief bio on his website has such a sense of clarity and poetry that it excels anything I might try to write:

As a documentary photographer, he deals with important topics of the present day. His view always centers on human beings and their environment. The main focus of his documentary work is to challenge our value systems. As a traveler, he visits the periphery of our habitats, always searching for the fragile beauty of human existence with its desires and abysses. His recent conceptual works deal with the themes of transience, crises and death.

So it comes as a surprise that his recent portrait gallery, The Unseen Seen, features not humans in states of distress or pleasure, but macro studies of objects — but not objects that are stand-in metaphors for human activity. Riedler’s subjects are records of human activity, but they are things that few people actually ever touch.

At first, there is nothing that seems less interesting than a reel of motion-picture film. It’s not a tool or an art object in itself; it’s nothing but a delivery system with an all-too-finite lifespan, one that is becoming, in our digital-cinema age, increasingly rare, even an object of curiosity. But Riedler has photographed reels of 35mm film, presenting them as objects worthy of aesthetic contemplation. He recently exhibited film reels as “portraits” in Hamburg’s Galerie Hengevoss-Dürkop. Here is how the gallery promo explains it:

The portrait is one of the traditional genres in the history of art which has never lost its pertinence. The Viennese photographer Reiner Riedler confronts us with a very intriguing type of portrait. He presents to us portraits pertaining to popular movies that all of us are familiar with, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), Josef Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), and Federico Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1985). However, the artist has not chosen a significant frame or created a compilation of various scenes, but has rather depicted the film reels of the movies in question in their materiality as such.

“Materiality as such” is artspeak for the simple fact that what we are seeing in these photographs are 2,000-foot mostly core-wound exhibition prints of feature films. The exhibition is the product of a photo essay that Riedler undertook in collaboration with German film archivist Volker Ernst, using the resources of the Deutsche Kinematek in Berlin.

Not all of these film rolls are from internationally known movies like Casablanca. Some of the reels reflect holdings that are of the greatest interest to scholars of early German (even silent) cinema. There is little visual difference between Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1985) and Urban Gad’s Die Gespensterstunde (1916). Gad is virtually unknown in America, but from 1910-1926 he directed 68 films, including 30 with his wife, actress Asta Nielsen.

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Ginger und Fred (Ginger e Fred), 1985

7. gespensterstunde

Some titles, such as Christian Petzold’s Ghosts (2005), clearly reflect the color palette or other elements of the movie:

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Gespenster (Ghosts), 2005

Here is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993):

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Three Colors: Blue (orig. Trois Couleurs: Bleu), 1993

The gallery further describes the colors and textures as if they were describing a floral bouquet:

The cool bluish shimmer of Don Hewitt’s See It Now: A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer (1955) evokes before our inner eye the image of Marlene Dietrich, with whom this conversation was conducted. The bright yellow of Alice in Wonderland (1951), which forms a contrast to a dark, shadowed ring and bars, recalls the magical, fairytale mysticism of this film. The blackness rendered in the case of Nosferatu (1922) takes up the horror and the nocturnal darkness in the film of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. The warm, golden beige, green and red, as well as the coarser, cord-like lines of Fitzcarraldo (1982) are reminiscent of the jungle in Werner Herzog’s famous movie.

On his website Riedler describes the process of making his film-reel portraits: I set up a little photo studio inside the cinema of the archive and backlit the film rolls by installing film lights behind the objects, lighting each roll in the same way for continuity. The result was a collection of images of a few hundred film rolls.

It appears to me that Riedler’s process was not a simple exercise of placing the rolls on a backlit piece of milk glass, but rather setting a sharply defined, quite bright spotlight behind each roll.

10. Fitzcaraldo

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Casablanca, 1942

Some are encased in their projection reels and represent the most canonic titles of their respective countries.

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Citizen Kane, 1941

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Les Enfants Du Pardis (Kinder des Olymp), 1943/1945

Others are barely there, disintegrating artifacts of a vinegar-syndrome glob of fused plastic, painful reminders of the fragility of our art, a vulnerability even more pronounced in the coming decade of digital non-migration.

14. nitrate15. nitrate 2

When I was a film student at USC, Paul Rayton and I were projectionists for film classes, including those of critic Arthur Knight. I became proficient at threading the unwieldy rolls, even projecting new prints fresh from the lab that were, like some of Riedler’s subjects, still on plastic lab cores. There was something quite magical about holding a reel of a Fellini or Resnais film in your hands and threading it over and under the sprocket drive of a ratchety Simplex projector, a visceral sound that has never quite left me, even though we’re several decades into the noiseless age of digital cinema. It’s ironic that many camera assistants working today who may still shoot on film (raw stock) have never held a roll of print film in their hands. Film dailies have been a lost cause for more than a decade.

How should we react to these photos of movie prints of the analog era? Are they the detritus of an outmoded technology, custodians of the actual images created by a cinematographer, photographs you can see with your eyes, or merely the fading but sacred relics of the sacrament of cinema?

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Metropolis, 1925/1926

THE UNSEEN SEEN, Alien, 1979 



About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. Pete Kuttner

    Knowing John’s fondness for wordplay, I wonder if, in introducing the idea of a subject looking into the lens, he is making a pun when he writes, “Reiner Riedler … accepts this dilemma head on.” Funny. too, for a guy like Bailey who practices his trade crafting dramatic and comedic portraits of subjects who never look into the camera. So, as the actor who makes us believe by never looking into the the lens, the documentary subject makes us believe by looking straight into the lens. John says Riedler “seems to delight in his subject’s confrontation with the viewer, not as judgment but as co-conspirator.”

    Probably the best example of this documentary style is Errol Morris whose latest film has a coincidentally similar title to Riedler’s “The Unseen Seen”. Morris’ “The Unknown Known” whose subject Donald Rumsfeld, one of George W. Bush’s architects of the the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, appears to be looking directly at the camera. Most readers of the blog know that Morris’ interviewing technique uses a version of a teleprompter which puts the interviewers image, rather than a rolling script, in a reflection in front of the lens which does not photograph it. This way Rumsfeld’s answers to Morris’ questions are delivered directly to camera. The first time I saw a Morris film using what he calls the Interrotron – “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” -I was surprised by the direct eye line. Over time I’ve come to prefer it to the all-too-familiar Ken Burns style of just off-camera looks. Just who is the subject addressing? Who else is there? Unless it’s “60 Minutes” and I am visually aware that the interviewer is in the same room, I’m distracted by the off-camera look.

    In the 1973, I worked on a talking head documentary [no not the one with David Byrne, that was Jonathan Demme]. Young white working class Chicagoans talked about race. We shot 16mm Kodak Double-X B&W negative with a handheld Auricon camera conversion. Our subjects were neighborhood kids we knew from the community organizing we were doing along with our filmmaking. Very cinéma engagé, huh? Our major concern was that the camera and microphone would change the way they normally spoke, with them worrying they might say something we would exploit for a laugh or edit in a way that would demean them. Even though we had built trust through weeks, months and in some cases, years of social contact, we were afraid the unfamiliarity of the film equipment might cause a breach. It was 40 years ago, long before the 100% media literacy we have today. People were not as comfortable around cameras back then.

    We tried to avoid the problem having the interviewer operate the camera . With one eye in the finder, the other making contact with our subjects and with one hand on the shouldered camera, the other gesturing and pointing as in normal conversation, even reaching for an occasional beer or joint, As we’d hoped, the subjects acted and spoke as though no camera was there. We succeeded. Our film “Trick Bag” is still one of the most plain-spoken, natural and, therefore believable documentaries I’ve worked on. Hollywood filmmakers might call the process by which we had our subjects talking straight to the lens a “Poor Man’s Interrotron.”

    As John states, at the beginning of this article, “This engagement of the viewer with the subject, created by a simple head turn to the lens, difficult to parse but powerfully dramatic, lies at the core of many a photographer’s evaluation of his work”. The directness and honesty of looking into the lens and making eye contact with the eye of the filmmaker, the photographer and most importantly, the audience – helps in what Reiner Riedler calls the search for “the fragile beauty of human existence with its desires and abysses.”

    Thanks, John. Here’s looking at you, kid.

    JOHN’S REPLY: As always, Pete, your thoughtful comments open new vistas of perception, direct and indirect. “Never look into the lens” is the mandate for fictional films. But, consider that one of the most powerful moments in all cinema is Jean-Pierre Leaud’s freeze frame look at the end of “The 400 Blows.”


Leave a Comment: